Suffering to succeed: Steph Auston is just getting started

At the Black Canyon Ultra Marathon in Arizona last February, Steph Auston looked to secure a starting spot for the 2021 Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run. Myles Gough explores the Australian’s seemingly limitless drive to push through pain in the pursuit of audacious dreams.

“Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.”

— Poet and philosopher Kahlil Gibran.
Part I. 

Steph Auston isn’t exactly sure where her determination stems from; but the elite ultra-marathon runner understands one thing about herself with certainty. 

“I’m good at suffering.” 

“I know that sounds terrible,” she quickly qualifies, “but I’m pretty good at getting to a painful place and just staying there. I’m quite happy to challenge myself in that way. And I’m not scared to put myself in the box and really push the body.” 

Pushing herself to extremes — and enduring a healthy dose of self-inflicted pain and suffering — has become almost routine for the 28-year-old Australian runner. 

Over the past four years, Auston has become a force-to-be-reckoned-with in the world of long-distance trail running, scoring victories at some of Australia’s most iconic off-road races. 

She’s twice won the Six Foot Track Marathon (2018, 2019), the Surf Coast Century 50 (2016, 2017) and the Ultra-Trail Australia (UTA) 22 (2016, 2019). 

Auston has also shown-off her versatility, moving seamlessly to the roads. In 2019, she took home top honours at the Canberra Marathon, posting an impressive personal best of 2:43.33.

She has — rightfully — earned a reputation as one of Australia’s toughest runners. Toughness, of course, is a subjective, unquantifiable trait. But Auston has leaned-into this rugged, gritty aspect of her character. It has defined her mentality as an athlete.

“On the start line, I might not be the fastest, or even the smartest runner, but I always think that I’m the toughest. And I really pride myself on that. I enjoy trying to be tough.” 

Steph Auston is one of Australia's toughest runners.
Steph Auston is one of Australia’s toughest runners. (Photo supplied).

Finding a way to the Western States 

This past February, Auston needed every molecule of toughness she could muster when she raced the 2020 Black Canyon Ultra Marathon

The 100-km journey — which traverses an historic trade and stock route through central Arizona — is one of only five so-called Golden Ticket races for the vaunted Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run (WSER).   

The WSER — held near Lake Tahoe in California — bills itself as the world’s oldest 100-mile (160-km) trail run. It’s an iconic, gruelling test of determination and will-power that attracts hardcore ultra runners from around the world. 

Or at least, those who can secure a limited and highly sought after race bib. 

For first-time participants (those who haven’t gained an elite designation from the Ultra-Trail World Tour), there are really only two ways to book a spot: enter an annual lottery — with slim chances of success — or earn your way in by winning one of 24 golden tickets.     

Auston, who views the WSER as a must-do challenge, took one look at the lottery odds and instinctively knew her game plan: “I was going to trust my legs more than my luck,” she laughs.   

She targeted the Black Canyon ultra for three main reasons: she was coming back from an injury, and the timing worked well. She considered the net-downhill course to be fast, and not overly technical, which suits a running style she half-jokingly describes as uncoordinated. And the climatic conditions in Arizona would be a good analogue for the WSER in nearby California.  

Auston spent six months training for the race. She needed to be mentally and physically ready to work as hard — and to suffer as much — as she ever had before. 

The stakes were high. In a field of approximately 170 female runners, there were only two golden tickets up for grabs. 

Auston was determined to come away with one of them.  

The only odds that matter

On the journey to America, Auston watched a film on the aeroplane called Ride Like a Girl, which tells the story of Australian Michelle Payne — the first female jockey to win the prestigious Melbourne Cup horse race.

A line from the film embedded itself in her mind, and played over and over, for the remainder of the flight: the only odds that matter are the ones you give yourself. 

It was a sign: she was in charge of her destiny. 

“I still had some doubts,” recalls Auston, as she thinks back on the days before the race.

“But I was mentally ready to turn myself inside out to get that ticket.” 

The start line at Black Canyon featured American Camille Herron, the world’s fastest female ultra-marathoner. Luckily for Auston — and the rest of the field — Herron had already booked her spot in the WSER. This was going to be a race for 2nd and 3rd place. 

Nevertheless, the competition was fierce. Auston was mostly concerned about Italian-born, New Zealand-based Cecilia Flori, and British ultra-marathoner Jo Meek.      

“I knew Jo was desperate for a ticket and I knew Cecilia was so strong,” Auston recalls. “But I also knew I couldn’t have been fitter for the day.” 

Runners, take your mark

It was dark on the start line, and cold — the temperature was around 1 degree Celsius pre-race. Auston was wearing arm warmers and gloves. 

When the gun went, a group of about a dozen women went out faster than her. She maintained what she says felt like a comfortable pace of about 4:20/km (that’s roughly a 21:40 5km pace). Through two kilometres she was in 10th position. And as the track narrowed into a rocky, single-file lane, she was unable to make-up too much ground. 

But this didn’t phase Auston — it played to her hand. 

“I’m a very steady runner,” she says. “It’s one of my strengths. I just do the same pace the whole way and hold on, while a lot of people… go out too fast and they fade.” 

“You have to be happy to be a little bit behind. And then focus on catching everyone. That’s what I love to do. I love racing, and I love catching people.”

As the trail widened, and other runners settled, this is exactly what Auston began to do. She steadily moved up the ranks, and soon found herself in the company of both Flori and Meek. 

But it wasn’t all unimpeded progress. 

On some of the technical descents, Auston needed to slow and concentrate to avoid tripping. Her fear of going down was real. Her stomach was also unsettled, and she needed to quickly use the toilet at the first aid station (at 13 km). Afterwards, she remembers running harder to make up lost time.

She eventually caught Meek and Flori again around the quarter-century mark. 

But her stomach issues hadn’t vanished. At the 33 km aid station, she went to the loo again. Luckily, this pit-stop didn’t cost her any ground, as a number of athletes were taking rest and aid, she recalls.  

Feeling much better, Auston was among the first to start moving again. As she set out, someone told her she was in 3rd place. She managed a smile. It was exactly where she needed to be.

But she wasn’t getting ahead of herself. There was still two-thirds of the race to go and Auston knew what lay ahead. 

“You have to accept, there are always going to be bad patches,” she says. “The race is way too long for there not to be.” 

Part II.

Auston grew up in the suburb of Cooranbong near Lake Macquarie, about an hour-and-a-half drive north of Sydney. 

She played several sports as a youngster, but at age 14 she decided to focus exclusively on running. At least, that was the plan. 

Not long afterwards, she was identified by the New South Wales Institute of Sport as a potential elite triathlete and began training with a squad in nearby Newcastle. For the next six years, she lived and breathed the sport, even though she says she “hated” swimming and getting cold.  

“From the age of 15 to 21 I just did lots and lots of triathlons. I think that’s probably one of the reasons I’m good at the really long [endurance] runs… I think it made me resilient, and gave me a very good aerobic engine.” 

But the hectic training schedule was all-consuming. When Auston was at the University of Newcastle, studying to become a physiotherapist, it became too hard to balance. 

After racing a half Ironman, she stepped away from triathlon and again made a pact with herself: she was going to focus on running. This time around, she kept the pact. 

In her final year of University, she began competing in half marathons, and quickly caught the racing bug. 

Falling into the world of trail running

Auston describes herself, simply, as a runner. 

There was no great yearning to become an ultra-marathon runner, or a trail runner. Going off-road was never a dream she knew she harboured. 

As she tells it, her introduction to the trails was mostly the result of chance. 

After finishing her degree, Auston took her first job at a hospital near the town of Bega on the far-south coast of New South Wales. It’s the hub of a picturesque region known colloquially as the Sapphire Coast. 

Auston was keen to connect with other runners. When she did so, however, she noticed something: “Everyone was talking about the Ultra Trail and a local event called the North Face 50,” she recalls. 

“Trail running was a really big thing among the local running community there, and I just wanted to be involved.”  

One of Auston’s earliest running acquaintances in town was Glenn Edmonds, president of the Sapphire Coast Runners and one of several coordinators of the Merimbula parkrun.

“She did sorta fall into trail running,” says Edmonds, who became one of Auston’s closest training buddies. “But as a runner, and a person, Steph is totally committed to everything she does… and she certainly immersed herself in it and quickly fell in love.”  

In 2016, when a group of locals were planning a trip to the Blue Mountains west of Sydney to compete in the UTA running festival, Auston tagged along. Her first foray into the world of trail running was the UTA22, which has approximately 1200-metres of climbing — nearly all of it in the latter half.

An unknown runner steals the show 

“She went to the UTA22  pretty much as an unknown, certainly on the trail running scene,” says Edmonds, who travelled up as a spectator. But this quickly changed: “During the race we got word from course officials that she was leading.”   

It was a head-scratcher to some in attendance, but not Edmonds: “She’s the most determined person I know,” he says. “She always prepares extremely well, and puts everything into every session and every run.”  

When the dust settled, Auston had easily won the inaugural edition of the race in a time of 2:03.28 — nearly 10 minutes ahead of 2nd place finisher Lucy Bartholomew.

“The finish was the most magical thing. Going up the stairs, you could feel the crowd at the top just roaring you up. It was really special.” 

Steph Auston takes the tape at the UTA22.
Steph Auston winning the UTA 22 for the second time in 2019. She won her debut at the race in 2016, beating fellow trail runner Lucy Bartholomew.

She finally understood the allure of trail running: “It was the most amazing atmosphere. And we got to run off-road in the most gorgeous locations. 

“It was just a natural progression from there.”  

Auston started mapping out other events around Australia, and looking to run even further distances. “Before I even ran a marathon, I did a 50-km race down at Surf Coast,” she says. 

Through 2017 and early 2018, she was beginning to make a name for herself on the Australian ultra and trail running scene as a formidable competitor. 

A setback and a step-up (in distance)

But then, in the middle of 2018, Auston broke her foot. A pair of stress fractures left her reeling and disheartened. 

“When it happened, I was thinking, ‘maybe I’m not meant to be running, maybe I’m not designed for this’,” she tells RunCreature. 

But she didn’t dwell on her self-doubt for long. 

In August, when she was still on crutches and wearing a moon boot, she set herself an ambitious target: “I know it sounds ridiculous, but I decided it would be a really good sign that my body was back together, and strong enough again, if I could do a 100-Ker.”

The race she had in mind was New Zealand’s 102-km Tarawera Ultramarathon.  It would be her first attempt at the century distance, and it was in February 2019, fewer than six months away. 

Auston says she treated the event like a “no pressure race” in a scenic location. But it wasn’t entirely without pressure. She was testing her body’s durability; its capacity to handle the demanding load she desperately wanted it to withstand.   

“They call it ‘life in a day’,” Auston says of the race. “You go through so many high points, and low points, and then high points. There were so many times in that race where I thought I couldn’t make it.” 

But it’s often in these make-or-break moments where Auston thrives: “I love pushing myself to do something I don’t think I can,” she says.   

“I couldn’t believe it when I got to the end. When you finish, it’s like, ‘If I can run 100 K, then I can do anything!’ It was quite an invigorating journey to go on.” 

It bears mentioning that Auston didn’t just finish the race. She finished 2nd overall, behind only Courtney Dauwalter — a living legend in the sport of ultra-marathoning.   

This remains one of Auston’s proudest accomplishments: “It was my first 100 K race, and I was coming back from injury. 

“It reassured me: your mind is strong, your body is strong, you’re made for this.” 

Part III. 

On the back of her success at Tarawera, Auston felt rejuvenated and invincible. 

“At the start of 2019, I just raced like crazy. I bounced back from my stress fracture, and… I did like 10 to 15 races all over 40 km, which is just ridiculous.” 

In one way, that attitude was a blessing. Auston — who was now sponsored by Salomon — had a string of victories, including her first road marathon win at Canberra in April. Then in June, she was off to Portugal to represent Australia at the 2019 Trail Running World Championships. 

But in terms of the toll on her body, it was a curse: “I just ran myself into the ground,” she now admits. 

By mid-year, Auston was again sidelined by injury. This time, it was a pair of stress fractures, not in her foot, but in her pelvis. 

Alarmingly, a bone density scan revealed she was showing signs of osteoporosis, a condition where bones lose calcium at a faster rate than the body replenishes it. As a result, bones become fragile and brittle. 

Representing Australia

In June 2019, Steph Auston travelled to Portugal to compete in the Trail Running World Championships. It was Auston’s first time representing Australia, and while the experience was memorable, she had a somewhat disappointing result, finishing 18th in the 44km race.

“The course was beautiful, but it was just this gnarly technical trail,” she recalls. “If you fell, you’d be in a lot of trouble… and all the European runners just seem to float down effortlessly.” None of the trails she had practiced on, or encountered, in Australia seemed comparable. She says she wore the wrong shoes, which likely cost her several minutes. She also says she got over-excited on the start line and went out way too fast.

In a word, the race was a failure. And in Auston’s opinion, that’s a good thing. “It’s so important to fail and to fail a lot — to be out of your comfort zone, in over your head, and to have experiences where you are humbled by the terrain or the competition. That’s what makes you better,” she says. “I’d much rather be in an event and finish last, but learn something from the experience than just do an event and win it easily.”

In future races, she says she’ll do more thorough reconnaissance, seeking out detailed information well in advance about the terrain and climate. This, in turn, she says, will enable greater specificity during training, and help with essential preparation decisions about things like footwear. Her uncharacteristic start also underscored the value of one her go-to mantras: “no matter what race you do, you just have to run your own race”. 

A career year interrupted

“I couldn’t believe I was so stupid to make the same mistake twice,” she tells RunCreature.  

“When I had broken my foot I promised myself I was going to take care of myself and treat myself like a proper athlete. I was going to look to perform, not just to do.” 

“I was approaching the first half of [2019] doing races because I wanted to do them… rather than asking, ‘is this the best thing for me long-term?’” 

Auston has aspirations to run ever-faster. She has unfulfilled ambitions on the trails and in the marathon, and she wants to be someone who is running well into old-age.  The fractures in her pelvis were a jolting wake-up call. She needed to make adaptations, or else her future in the sport would be jeopardised. What she decided she needed was a team

“Every story you hear about [top athletes], it’s not about one person who does it by themselves — it’s about the team around them, and it’s about a longevity approach.”  

“I changed my mindset. I went from being a runner thinking, ‘No, I’m fine, I can do this all by myself,’ to saying, ‘I want to surround myself with the best team possible so I can be my best’.” 

Getting help to reach new heights 

Over the next few months, Auston began reaching out to people she admired, whom she had heard speaking on podcasts. 

She spoke with a psychologist about her goals and her motivations for running. She also contacted a sports nutrition professional and naturopath named Kate Smyth, who runs the Athlete Sanctuary in Melbourne. Smyth helped diagnose Auston with coeliac disease, which is characterised by an intolerance to gluten. 

According to the U.S. National Institute of Health, osteoporosis is often a complication of untreated coeliac disease. In healthy people, bone strengthening nutrients such as calcium are absorbed inside the small intestine. But when people with coeliac disease eat gluten, their immune systems go into overdrive and begin attacking and damaging the lining of the small intestine. This damage can prevent the normal absorption of calcium, causing bones to weaken over time. 

This diagnosis was a revelation for Auston. She worked with Smyth to modify her diet accordingly and she believes the changes have yielded positive results (she has so far remained uninjured, and plans to have a second bone density scan in early 2021). 

The last person Auston reached out to was 2:14 marathoner Julian Spence, the co-host of Inside Running Podcast, the owner of The Running Company — Ballarat, and the founder of Run Strong Online Coaching.

Auston had been impressed with Spence’s work with World Championship competitor and Olympic-hopeful Ellie Pashley, and she wanted someone who was going to be completely no-nonsense about how to succeed sustainably.

It was with this team in her corner that Auston went into the Black Canyon Ultra Marathon. She was physically recovered from her pelvis fractures, well-tapered, more knowledgeable about her body and its needs, and she was mentally ready to go all out in the Arizona desert. 

Training with the Moose

One of the main things that influenced Julian Spence’s programming for Steph Auston was her history of repeated bone stress injuries. “I always had this at the front of mind when designing her training programs,” Spence tells RunCreature. “Steph is exceptionally talented at distance running from 5000m through to ultra distance races and her main limitation has been a lack of consistency due to injury.”

To help Auston find the consistency she would need to compete at Black Canyon, Spence reduced her weekly mileage and dropped her down to two workouts per week (from three) plus an easy long run. He also shut down her tendency to run twice on workout days. 

But bad habits can be hard to break, and the transition wasn’t entirely smooth for Auston. “She would consistently change the program to add double runs, increase length of easy runs, do enormous warm ups or cool downs and increase long runs sometimes by as much as an hour,” recalls Spence. 

Auston remembers apologising to her new coach after these missteps, and Spence calling her out. “I’d want to be doing more, but Julian was always trying to reel me in. He’d say, ‘No, why did you do that?’” Spence initially saw this as a “lack of trust” in his training plan, but later came to appreciate his athlete’s nuanced relationship to running. “Pulling back on exercise was something that Steph struggled with and she used her running as a therapy. When she was having trouble with her mental health, she would push herself on the trails.” 

Auston compares it to surfing: “Sometimes there are no waves but there are still some die hard people who seek the solace and the calm of the ocean and go out everyday. For me the process of running is the grounding freedom I seek when I am not sure, uncertain, stressed and can’t structure my thoughts. The certainty and simplicity of running is why I use it as stress relief as well as training.” Auston also believes she has over-trained in the past to prove her worth. “Being a young female I was — and am — very impressionable,” she says. “I was always thinking I was never enough. That someone was always smarter, skinnier, better, stronger or faster.” 

“I know it’s an issue,” she tells RunCreature. “I literally run away from my problems, which in itself becomes a problem. I guess that’s why I sought out an honest coach.”

Spence made it a priority to keep his athlete accountable for her decision-making. Her goal was to perform at the Black Canyon ultra, in order to run 160-mile WSER, but she could only achieve those goals if she was healthy. No matter how therapeutic she found running, she needed to resist the urge to overload her body. He became the no-nonsense voice Auston desperately needed. “Julian really put the brakes on [my overtraining],” she says. “Having a coach that can be honest with you is so important. And that was Julian.”  

Part IV.

In the world of ultra-marathoning, runners don’t just experience pain; they become intimately acquainted with the sensation. Auston manages this relationship — at times — by playing mind games. 

“I remind myself the pain is temporary,” she says. “I always say, ‘pain is an output’. We make it up, and so [to fight through it] you simply have to make up another story in your head.” 

There are other techniques, too. Sometimes she repeats mantras, or practices visualisation. And in really desperate times, it can take some creativity to manufacture a make-shift distraction. 

During the Black Canyon ultra, she used every tool in the box. 

A continual process of death and resurrection 

Auston reached the 50-km midway point in just under 5 hours, and was in second place, trailing only Herron — the prohibitive favourite. 

“It was a crazy fast pace considering the terrain,” she says. “I had to just move forward and hold on for the second half.”  

But the chilly temperatures were long gone, replaced instead by the heat of the desert sun. At the 60-km aid station, Auston remembers dousing herself with water. She was in a good position, but she was dreading the next section: a 14-km stretch punctuated by an uninterrupted climb of more than 180-metres of elevation gain.  

Trying to cool down mid-race.
Steph Auston tries to cool down at an aid station mid-way through the Black Canyon Ultra Marathon in Arizona.

It was on this hill when the first wave of pain crashed. 

Auston suddenly felt nauseous. She kept moving, wading forward into the so-called bad patch. She slowed to a shuffle, desperate to avoid being sick, and kept climbing. But she was beginning to lose her footing. She stumbled several times. 

Finally — near the top of the hill — Flori passed her.  

But rather than whizzing-by, the Italian runner encouraged her rival. She said they weren’t far off the leader, and suggested they work together to catch her. 

Somehow Auston found the strength to rally, and she kept on Flori’s heels until the next checkpoint. Fuelling with lollies and crisps, and downing heaps of water, helped rejuvenate Auston somewhat, but she wasn’t home free.   

“Over the next rolling kilometres I rode the waves of feeling good and dying.”

Fighting every urge to stop

Her metaphor was purposeful: she tried to visualise each bad patch as a wave she could ride-up and over. A wave is something with a definitive form, and a clear end-point, through which she could eventually emerge. 

Auston also found a helpful distraction: she was carrying a squishy, reusable cup, which she used to get water at the aid stations. “When I started to feel sick, I would just squeeze it really, really hard.” 

And to stay focused, she turned to one of many mantras in her repertoire: Just run the kilometre you’re in. 

“You’re out there so long, and your body doesn’t know what you’re doing. It wants to stop,” she says. “It tries to make you slow down by making you feel really awful.” 

“It took everything in that race to ride through those bad patches,” she says.  

Through the last quarter of the race, Auston and Flori — who was also feeling unwell by this point — seemed to be locked in a game of leap-frog. One would overtake the other, only to get passed a short while later when they hit another proverbial wall. 

The main thing was, nobody else passed them. They were still alternating between second and third spot. This kept Auston moving, even when she slowed to a walk on one of the final hills; when every muscle felt like grinding to a halt. 

“I was suffering badly, but at the flat I told myself, ‘I must run… Think of everyone at home. I must run’.” And then, on the descent, her legs obeyed. 

A dream come true 

As a coach, there’s only so much you can do to prepare an athlete for a 100-km or longer race. 

It’s virtually impossible to “simulate the back end of the event without risking massive fatigue and injury in training,” Spence tells RunCreature. “There are some things the athlete will only experience during the race, which they can never practice.” 

One of those impossible-to-simulate variables is sheer exhaustion. 

At the final aid station, Auston was nearly at this point, teetering on the brink. 

There was a sign that said: 3.2 miles left.  Auston — who clocks her distances in kilometres — was too spent to work out the conversion. The numbers, frustratingly, failed to properly arrange themselves in her mind. She remembers eating as much watermelon as she could grab, and then setting off, one last time. 

These final kilometres were a slog. She was behind Flori now, in third place, and running scared. She remembers looking over her shoulder, worried with every glance that someone might be gaining on her; that they might see a wounded and distressed animal. Easy prey; ripe for the picking. 

But nobody came into view. 

She shuffled-up the final hill, her eyes watery, her legs like iron weights. Each step heavier, clunkier than the last. And then she saw it: the end. 

“Running up that finish chute was one of those dreams come true,” she recalls. On the other side of the line, she fell to the dusty, gravelly-earth, happy to finally be finished; her body and mind finally allowing a moment of stillness.

An exhausted Steph Auston rests after finishing the Black Canyon ultra.
Steph Auston rests after finishing 3rd at the 100-km Black Canyon Ultra Marathon.

“The race was such a big journey. It was hot and I died a million times in that second half. But I did it. To set a really big goal, that’s going to take all of you to try to achieve, and then to actually do it — it was just amazing!” 

Spence never doubted his athlete would be in contention, and his assessment of Auston is definitive: “She is the best female ultra distance runner in Australia,” he tells RunCreature. “And she nailed months of consistent training leading in. No one massive workout but months of great training.” 

And while Auston might have felt like she was running scared down the homestretch, Spence takes a different view: “She was racing in the final 10km,” he says “And that takes so much more fight than just jogging in to finish.” 

Part V. 

There were tears. And embraces. And two novelty-sized golden tickets, which were presented to Auston and Flori in the aftermath, as they stood on the podium. 

Auston didn’t get to keep it, but she did get a miniature, gold foil-wrapped milk chocolate version. 

“It’s like a full-on, Willy Wonka chocolate ticket that I’ll never open, and it says, ‘You’ve gained entry into the Western States’.”  

Steph hopes to one day frame the chocolate bar underneath what she hopes will be a silver belt buckle from the WSER, and her finisher’s photo. (All finishers under 24 hours get a silver buckle, while runners finishing between 24 and 30 hours get a bronze version. Auston is targeting a sub-20 hour run).   

Of course, she needs to keep the chocolate bar from melting in the interim. “It’s currently sitting in the fridge at home, and I’m hoping nobody eats it. My dad probably will,” she adds, with a laugh.

When she reflects on the race, there’s a cocktail of emotions: pride, satisfaction, amazement. “It was so surreal. When you set a big dream goal and you actually achieve it, it’s a feeling of shock. You’re like ‘What do I do now?’” 

Standing on the podium after securing her golden ticket.
Steph Auston (left) stands on the podium with Camille Herron and Cecilia Flori. All have qualified for the 2021 Western States Endurance Run in California.

“And of course, it’s just a gateway to the next thing.”  

That next big thing is the WSER. The 2020 edition was cancelled, and so Auston will be racing in June 2021. It will be her first attempt at the 100-mile (160-km) distance — and it may well be her last. 

“I can’t even contemplate what that distance is going to be like, but it’s a bucket list kind of thing… It’ll probably be the longest that I ever go,” she says. “I want to run for a long time, into my eighties, so I don’t want to wear myself out doing too many extreme events. I’ll do Western States, and then I’ll definitely step back to shorter, more runnable races.” 

Dream big and don’t limit yourself

When Auston talks about shorter races, she includes the marathon.

This is where she believes her best running could yet take place. And her goals for the 42.2 km distance are audacious. 

She wants to run the Olympic qualifying standard of 2:29.30 — and do it before the Tokyo games. To do so, she’ll need to shave more than 10 minutes off her best time.

She knows — even if she pulls it off —  the “top girls are way too fast” for her to stand a chance of representing Australia. 

“But just to run a qualifier would be amazing,” she says. “I really hope that somewhere between now [October] and April there’s a marathon and I can have a really good crack.”  

“At the moment, it seems impossible. But so did running 100-K a couple of years ago.”

“We all have to dream, and it doesn’t hurt to have a go. That’s my philosophy. Don’t limit yourself. Don’t let fear, or failure hold you back. Just have a go.”

“And how satisfying is it when you have a big leap?” 

For the love of the sport

For her part, Auston — who has temporarily relocated to tropical north Queensland to do some locum physiotherapy work — has been training hard and focusing on speed sessions. 

It’s the area where she knows she needs to see the biggest improvement if she wants to pull off a fast marathon.   

Like most runners, Auston is looking forward to the resumption of races. She wants to continue to push her body and test her toughness; to accrue the battle scars of hard fought victories. And she misses “the atmosphere… of all the people striving to do their best”. 

But the uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic has also kept things in perspective. Between her sessions, she has taken the opportunity to slow things down, and explore her new surroundings in Queensland, discovering stunning mountain peaks, tropical trails, and epic waterfalls along the way. She has also been doing her own coaching with Run2PB, and helping other runners improve and stay motivated.

Auston has her goals. But there’s also a contentment that sits comfortably alongside her competitive nature. It comes from understanding, on a deep level, why she chooses to run: to chase calmness, and to find solace.

“Even if there was never another running event, I’d still run because I just love it. I love where it’s taken me, and the people I’ve met. 

“As long as that love remains, that can only be a good thing.”  

Want more? Check out all of RunCreature’s features and interviews.

Myles Gough

Myles Gough

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